Failing democracy

Hopes for a new decade

In December 2019 I was invited by the Eastern Daily Press to write about my hopes for 2020.

But we are not living in hopeful times. In one of the richest countries in the world, we have people sleeping on the streets, and many more who can’t afford a decent home. We have an environmental crisis, stagnant living standards, the greatest inequality in wealth for a century, growing poverty, a struggling health service, and a social care system which cannot guarantee that we will all spend our last years in dignity and comfort. And we have just given a Parliamentary majority to the party which has been in government for the last nine years.

A divided country

Four elections and a referendum have shown us a country, and a county,  deeply divided. On five consecutive occasions, around a third of the people voted for one thing, around a third voted for the opposite, and around a third did not vote. By a quirk of our electoral system, we now have a government with a large majority in Parliament, despite the fact that a slight majority voted for parties which opposed that government’s central policy. Probably more people voted to stop something they feared, than voted for something they hoped for.

So hope may be the wrong word. Like many people, I am pessimistic about the chances of any of these getting better soon. So I chose something which could, in the long term, help us towards a more democratic government, which could command the support of a real majority, and help resolve some of the challenges.

Three reforms

I want three reforms to our electoral system:

Firstly, we should replace our “first past the post” system with a proportional one. At present if you live in most of Norfolk there is no real chance of changing anything by voting in national elections, since all the seats are “safe” for Conservatives (or Labour in Norwich South). So what happens to us is decided by a few voters in marginal seats far away.

Secondly, we should return power and resources to a much more local level. For more than 40 years, central government has been steadily emasculating local government, by removing funding, and imposing national controls and performance measures. Public confidence has been undermined in a system where local Councils are still expected to deliver services, with ever more detailed monitoring and control, but with no scope to pay for what is needed.

Finally, we need far more opportunities for people to learn about and debate the issues which affect their lives. In 1943, in a bankrupt country in the middle of a war, the Coalition government decided to provide every serviceman and woman with three hours a week of education about political and economic issues. The result was a surge in understanding of the issues, and engagement in politics. If we spent more time helping people to understand the issues, we might have less division and a better world.

Can we hope?

I am not hopeful. Parties rarely reform the system which put them in power, especially if they know that their power rests on a precarious base. I am not confident of any of this happening in my lifetime, but for the sake of my granddaughter and her generation, I hope we can move at least a little forward.

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